New EU initiative to boost graduate employability

Three North African states and four European and Middle Eastern countries are to benefit from a new three-year European Union-funded Tempus initiative aimed at enhancing the employability of university graduates in the Mediterranean region.

The partner countries are Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa, France, Italy and Spain in Southern Europe and Lebanon in the Middle East.

The regional project involves 25 partners and is called SEMSEM - Service for Employability and Mobility Through Internships for Students from Maghreb-Mashrek Countries. It was officially launched on 18 February at Montpellier 2 University, France, according to a report.

To bridge the gap between education systems and the requirements of employers, the EUR1.4 million (US$1.9 million) project will help to modernise higher education in southern Mediterranean countries and support convergence with higher education in Europe.

The three-year initiative aims in particular to optimise young graduates' employability by developing partnerships between universities and companies and reforming training in order to encourage mobility and employability.

A digital platform will be established to facilitate research, study completion and support for and monitoring of work placements, by collecting bids and requests for internships or first jobs in the seven partner countries. A database for national and international offers will be developed to promote mobility.

The project will also encourage dialogue between universities and industry to enhance training and coaching activities, and will provide assistance in preparing CVs and for job interviews.

Graduate unemployment in North Africa

High unemployment rates among the educated youth, along with an unmet need for specific skill sets, are a special concern for North Africa, according to a 2012 OECD report titled Youth Employment: Five challenges for North Africa.

The creation of jobs for graduates has not kept up with the rapid expansion of tertiary education systems, which has fuelled the unemployment challenge, the report said.

An online survey published last month and conducted in the Middle East and North African region, "New Horizons: Young, Arab and connected", revealed that young North Africans had the greatest level of dissatisfaction with their education system, with 56% unhappy with its current state.

Means to graduate employability

Calestous Juma, co-chair of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation and director of the science, technology and globalisation project at Harvard University, described the new initiative as important.

"But equally important is the urgency to create employment opportunities in North Africa by fostering business incubation. Universities need to play a bigger role as incubators of enterprises," he told University World News.

"Such a move would require reform in curricula and pedagogy which in turn would result in more employable graduates."

Abdelkader Djeflat, an Algerian higher education expert at the University of Lille in France, told University World News the project was timely. To enhance graduate employability, both long-term and short-term measures were needed.

In the long term, higher education reforms should be deepened and intensified, introducing a higher level of ICT usage - for teaching, learning and job searches - and changing the mentality of both the academic and industrial worlds.

"They have been living too far apart and have somehow developed negative attitudes towards each other." Changing the mentality of students, whose main objective is to find secure well-paid jobs in administration, is also important, he said.

In the short- to medium-term, improving teaching should preoccupy policy-makers. Quality assurance schemes should be introduced to education systems, particularly in higher education. Undergraduate and postgraduate courses should be strengthened and linked to industry needs, especially for the majority of students who are not intending to pursue academic careers.

"The dual training system, whereby students spend half of their time in industry, is also a scheme to be envisaged to break the traditional wall between university and industry," Djeflat argued.

Martin Rose, country director for the British Council in Rabat, Morocco, told University World News that improving graduate employability would require, among other things, better calibration of syllabus and skills offers to the job market and much closer liaison with employers (locally) and employer bodies (nationally).

Much greater attention needed to be paid to soft skills required by national and international employers, to language competence and to "rigorous self-analysis concerning which courses and specialities turn out the most unemployed graduates - that is, which are the least closely calibrated to the market".

"In Morocco, most unemployed graduates are said to be Arabic literature, Islamic studies, physics, chemistry and biology, one source suggesting that between them they provide 80% of unemployed graduates," said Rose.

"These lessons must be learned and addressed through syllabus change and-or limits on numbers in certain courses, even though they may be cheap and popular. And something needs to be done about risk-aversion - the relative over-attractiveness of public sector jobs: 70% of students surveyed prefer to work in public to private sector."